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Court Rules on Proper Interpretation of Will

The Georgia Supreme Court recently ruled on what was the proper interpretation of a will that appeared to leave an interest in real property to his wife, in fee simple, but also let the same property to his son and his son’s children. The issue was between the executors of the estate and the grandchildren as to whether they inherited an interest in the land or if the wife’s estate held the title to the land in fee simple.

Facts of the Case

Hodge King and his wife, Hattie, jointly owned four separate tracts of land together as tenants in common during his lifetime. When Mr. King died in 1999, he stated in his will that “I give, devise, and bequeath to my wife, Hattie F. King, all of my property, both real and personal, wherever located and whenever acquired, either before or after the making of this my Will, hers in Fee Simple.”

However, the next item of his will stated that upon his wife’s death, the four tracts of land should be devised to his son and any lawful children of his son born in wedlock. Hattie King died in 2012, leaving her own will and appointing her nieces as heirs to the estate. In her will, she gave one tract of land to Mr. King’s son in fee simple, and the other three tracts she gave to her nieces.

Mrs. King’s nieces were unaware of the issue with the title from Mr. King’s will until they tried to sell the property that they thought that they owned to a third party. When they realized the issue, they contacted Mr. King’s son and his two daughters. The nieces offered to settle through a quit claim deed in the two tracts given to Mr. King’s son in Mrs. King’s will if they would quit claim their interest in one tract. The grandchildren refused the agreement, and they sued to clear the title on all four tracts of land.

Ruling of the Court

A Superior Court in Georgia ruled in favor of Mrs. King’s nieces and stated that all four tracts of land should be given to Mrs. King’s estate in fee simple. The grandchildren were denied a new trial and appealed directly to the Georgia Supreme Court. This court reversed the ruling of the lower court and found in favor of the grandchildren.

The state Supreme Court stated that when a will purports to give land in fee simple, a lesser estate should not be held unless it is clear from a subsequent provision of the will that it was the intent of the testator. Mr. King used the phrase “upon the death of my said wife” and gave no other uncertain events to trigger the passing of the land from one person to another. Based on the plain language in Mr. King’s will, the Supreme Court found that it was his intention to give a life estate to Mrs. King, with the remainder given to his son and grandchildren.

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